Foster Care

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Michelle Phillips

In the past couple of weeks, I have been thinking about the foster care program in the United States.

It really began while working on a story about Luke’s Closet at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church. (See story page 5) Luke’s Closet offers free clothes to foster families, and I know firsthand that many children come into foster care with nothing but the clothes on their back because my family was a foster family.

I was an only child and my mom and stepfather were trying to adopt a baby but decided in the meantime to foster children. I was a teenager at the time, and we were living in the country in a three-bedroom house. The first couple of kids were with us only for a short time because their parents had done something stupid to land their child at our home. For example, a two-year-old girl was left in a locked car on the side of the highway while her father walked to get help for a flat tire. Yes, that’s right, in the land before cell phones, you had to walk to get help when your car broke down.

Then we had a string of teenagers, including three teenage girls (Sue, Lori and Chris) from separate families that were living with us at the same time. Two were runaways and the third was taken from her home when a neighbor learned her mother tried to prostitute her out and called Department of Human Services (DHS). Sue, one of the girls who ran away, was in the system because her mom’s new husband didn’t want her around.

I was 15 at this time, and completely mortified by the stories the girls told about physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Lori had been sexually assaulted by her mom’s boyfriend and Chris’s dad beat her mother so badly she was hospitalized. Living with these young women that were near my age made me thankful for the family I had been born into.

The last foster child we had was Jason. Jason was five and not potty trained. He was the oldest of three kids that had been separated by the system. His parents had met in Ypsilanti, MI at the state mental hospital, and were in and out of the facility frequently. The reason the kids had been taken away was because of malnutrition. It was not that they didn’t have food, but that they didn’t feed the kids, often because they would “forget,” according to Jason’s social worker. 

Jason was losing his hair and his belly was distended, much like the kids you see on TV commercials for humanitarian aid in developing countries. He had been in the hospital briefly for dehydration before he came to live with us and was on a soft diet for the first couple of weeks until his body could digest solid food again. My parents worked hard to bring him back to health. Within a few months, his hair had come back, his stomach returned to normal and he was using the toilet like any other five-year-old.

My mom and dad were at work and I was at school one day when the social worker called my mom and told her Jason would be returned to his parents. They had met all the stipulations for having their kids returned. This was not unusual as most of the foster kids had been returned to their par­ents, but then the social worker asked my mom to go home on her lunch and put his things on the porch as he would not be returning to our house. 

Jason had been with our family for two years. My mother was devastated that she didn’t get to say goodbye to this little boy whom my parents had brought back to health and nurtured like their own. My mom was inconsolable at first, and I remember my dad saying, “that is enough,” the emotional strain was too much. In total my parents fostered 10 kids in three and a half years. 

Though DHS pays families to foster children, it is not nearly enough to cover all of the expenses of a child. I remember in spite of my parents both working we were poor ourselves at the time. My parents would frequent the Goodwill for clothes, we had a large garden and the food pantry provided generic, black and white label items that were barely edible. We also traded vegetables and fruits we grew for eggs, milk and cheese with an Amish family down the road from us. 

As I said previously, most of the kids came to us at odd hours, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. It was impossible to keep clothes on hand, because you did not know the sex, age or size of the children who would be placed in your home. My parents would have loved Luke’s Closet, and welcomed any help they could get when a new child came to our home. 

Foster parenting is hard, but also rewarding and I commend any family that takes it on. Sometimes kids will act out in violence toward other kids in the family out of frustration, fear and hurt. Lori was one of those kids who was often trying to hurt me and the other foster kids, or sometimes herself. Sometimes they are so emotionally scarred they are withdrawn and depressed.

It is often hard to know how much of an impact, if any, you are making when it comes to foster kids because they are often guarded. In the late ‘90s, Jason tracked down my parents and told them that living with us was the happiest time of his childhood. In 2004 when my mom died, I found a letter from Sue thanking my parents for taking her in and showing her love when her own family couldn’t.

So, I want all you foster moms and dads out there to remember that even though it may seem like you are not making much progress or getting through to foster kids, they are listening. They see your kindness and feel your love. You are making a difference. 

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